Sparkling with thousands of Swarovski crystal beads, Judith Leiber’s
handbags epitomize magnificent craftsmanship and style. Her diverse
and whimsical designs have captivated generations of socialites and
celebrities, from former first lady Mamie Eisenhower to rap artist
Nelly. During Leiber’s career, which spanned almost four decades,
she created bags that evolved from glamorous rhinestone accessories
into exquisite objets d’art. Asian, Indian, Art Deco, Pop culture
and antique influences further elevated her bags into an art form.
One of the few products still made by hand in the United States, each
beaded bag takes up to two years to produce. One bag may incorporate
up to 13,000 Swarovski crystal beads or rhinestones and requires up
to five days to finish. An artist fabricates each pattern out of cardboard
or wax, stamps it in brass, goldplates or silverplates it, and lines
it with nappa leather. The artist then transfers by hand an original
painting to the bag and, using a stick with beeswax at the end, individually
applies each rhinestone or crystal to the outlined design.
To honor her pioneering work, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington,
D.C., has organized a traveling exhibit called “Fashioning Art:
Handbags by Judith Leiber,” which is currently on display at
the Boca Raton Museum of Art in Boca Raton, Fla. Encompassing her
repertoire from 1964 to 1998, the year of her retirement, this retrospective
showcases more than 150 bags, including an example of the first beaded
bag she created in 1967.
For the Hungarian-born Leiber, quality work has always been a top
priority — and an innate talent. “My mother’s family
were hat makers in Vienna, and I seem to have inherited some of my
grandmother’s skills,” she says. “So, I learned
all the skills of crafting handbags, and became a master handbag mechanic,
designer and patternmaker.” In fact, Leiber became the first
female master in the Hungarian handbag guild, and produced fine handbags
until World War II made it impossible to work.
After the war, she met and married an American GI, Gershon Leiber,
a painter and printmaker. The couple moved to the United States, where
Leiber encountered challenges looking for work. “It was not
easy to be the first and only female patternmaker in the trade,”
she says. “I had to prove what I could do and also work hard
to learn the different techniques and practices of the American industry.”
She spent more than 14 years as a patternmaker, designer and foreman
for a number of handbag manufacturers. Finally, Leiber’s husband
encouraged her to start her own business, and the duo became entrepreneurs,
gradually building on Leiber’s skill and contacts.
“I wanted to make my bags as beautiful as possible in line and
shape, without compromising on materials or workmanship,” Leiber
says of her start-up philosophy.
But ironically, a compromise gave rise to her signature style. “My
first metal bag was the ‘Chatelaine,’ a purse-shaped box,”
she says. “When the first batch arrived, the plating was very
poor. I covered all the bad areas with rhinestones, and the rhinestone
bag was born. Later, I developed solid-color beaded bags and started
to do patterns on classic shapes. Then new shapes beckoned, such as
cats, dogs, Buddhas, elephants and so on.”
As her business grew in stature, Leiber became a dominant force in
the fashion industry. In 1973, she received a Coty Award — the
first ever given for handbag design. More accolades followed, including
the Fashion Accessories Lifetime Achievement Award in 1983, the Council
of Fashion Designers Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993, and the Accessories
Hall of Fame Award in 2001.
Fans of Leiber’s handbags can view “Fashioning Art”
at the Boca Raton Museum of Art through Dec. 31, 2005. From there,
it moves on to the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa.
For additional information on the Boca Raton exhibit, call 561/392-2500,
or visit the website at www.bocamuseum.org. For more information on
the Doylestown exhibit and Corcoran Gallery, visit www.corcoran.org.